By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST PHOTOGRAPHIC JARGON IS FAIRLY ACCURATE OVER TIME, with words like aperture, shutter, or f-stop remaining clear and useful terms across the years. Other terms like negative or analog are redefined as evolution demands. One holdover from the earliest days of image-making, however, has warped utterly out of relevance over the centuries, however, and for that reason, I’d like to see it retired. Like forever.
The word is snapshot.
When camera technology initially advanced from slow lenses and laboriously long exposures to what was, at the time called “instantaneous photography”, a proponent of this leap forward, writer John Herschel, coined the phrase snap-shot to denote a picture that could be taken in around a tenth of a second, as compared to several minutes for traditional cameras. The term was, then, a celebration of freedom….from the tyranny of the clock, from sustained frozen poses, and, with the introduction of the personal camera, from the tripod and the studio.
Reality is overrated: an out-the-window quickie from 2021 converted via phone app to a faux “snapshot”.
Sadly, over time (there’s that word again), the word snapshot came to denote something else, something substantially less “serious” than a “real” photograph, being used to describe a careless or badly made shot, done on the fly, and with little or no forethought. Go to a dictionary in 2021 and you will still see a snapshot defined as something captured ” without artistic or journalistic intent and usually made with a relatively cheap camera (Wikipedia), “a casual photograph made typically by an amateur” (Merriam-Webster) or even “a photograph taken without the use of professional equipment” (MacMillan). Truly, in a medium that, like all artistic realms, is riddled with its own aristocracy of snobs, the snapshot is the Rodney Dangerfield of photography.
And yet the word really only means what it originally meant: an image taken in the moment. There is even an entire school of photographic technique that teaches a “snapshot aesthetic”, or the ability to take images simply, quickly, albeit with a sensitive eye. A fast process doesn’t necessarily equate to bad exposure or poor composition: it just means that the photographer is ready to make his/her choice in a short time frame.
In fact, the idea behind what the snapshot originally gave us the freedom to do has driven all camera technology since that time…..that is, a constant evolution toward making pictures quicker and more accurately, in effect making the camera more and more simple in operation so that it can remove the biggest obstacle to taking pictures instinctively. You no doubt have images that you truly treasure that were shot with a minimum of prep or fuss, as is the case with this super-fast capture of my own (which was, ironically, processed afterward to make it look like a snapshot). Merely having the luxury of endless time to linger over your shooting decisions does not guarantee that you will make those decisions wisely. Likewise, speed, ease, or a casual attitude doesn’t automatically doom you to bad pictures. Indeed, the whole history of photography shows us lusting after convenience, as an aid to better photos. Again, it’s down to what you do with what you got.